doing ever since the boy went missing. If only he knew how the boy once made the eerie confession that he wished it was I who was his father and not he, Abednego, never mind that I’m only twenty-four and Bukhosi had just turned seventeen.
He’s been missing for over a week, since the beginning of October. Yes, I must say it again to believe it, it’s already beginning to feel to me as though the boy never existed at all: Bukhosi is missing. BUKHOSI IS MISSING. Bukhosi is missing. Abednego sat down heavily on my little put-me-up bed, still clutching the whisky and the glasses, and snottily apologized for crying. I watched his tears drip-dripping into the crystal glass, like our taps on the days when the municipal doesn’t cut off the water supply, and tried to cluck sympathetically. He confessed that it pained him to say the boy’s name out loud, to look up as though at any moment he would hear his heavy steps thudding on Mama Agnes’s polished cement floor and see his plump, walnut face peeping around the living room door.
I wanted to reach out and hold him, but we had never shared such moments, him and I. I had seen him lean into Mama Agnes’s embraces, inhaling the scent of her perfumed bosom as she hugged him in greeting when he arrived home from those long hours at the Butnam Rubber Factory. I had also caught him and Bukhosi once, locked in an uncomfortable grip, something almost like a hug, but not quite, for their faces were held apart even as they squeezed each other’s shoulders.
‘We’ll find him,’ I said, relieving him of the glasses but not the whisky, which he clutched possessively. ‘I’m here for you.’
‘Bukhosi,’ he muttered again, wincing as he said it, speaking it out loud in the same way God bespake Adam into existence, croaking Bukhosi and therefore he was; except he wasn’t. And me, I winced because I suspected he may never be found, for I was there with him when he disappeared – we were chanting side by side at the rally held by the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement only nine days ago, on Sunday 7 October, in Stanley Square. The flame-lilies were raging, the sunflowers sashaying and our secessionist leader Dumo spraying us with his saliva as he frothed up a call to arms, to secession, to revolution, to freedom!
‘Secede from the country Zimbabwe,’ he cried. ‘Secede!’ ‘Secede!’ echoed our fevered chorus.
‘For our brothers killed in the ’80s in the Gukurahundi Genocide!’ he cried. ‘Secede!’ ‘Secede!’ we echoed. ‘Secede from tyranny!’ ‘Secede!’
While we were thrusting peaceful fists of revolt in the air, the riot police thrust themselves on our gathering, gathering those of us who could not run fast enough into the backs of their police vans. And that was the last time I saw Bukhosi and that’s when he went missing.
What would Dumo say to me now? Speak Truth to Death or Live a Dead Lie! I never understood half of what Dumo said, but he had an uncanny knack of somehow hitting your heart, regardless. Dumo, who tried to be my mentor and, more importantly, nursed my grief after my Uncle Fani’s death, a grief that turned me delirious for a time; Dumo who, even so, never tired of lambasting me, telling me I was useless as a revolutionary protégé, lacking the kind of recklessness necessary to resurrect insurrection.
But what does it matter what he would say to me now? I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad man antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakazi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.
Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So, when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with some familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky history bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.
I have begun calling him, jokingly but in all seriousness, surrogate father. And let this surrogacy business fool no one, I intend to be as close to the Mlambos as any real son would be, bound, happily, by the Bantu philosophy of ubuntu, that communal pedigree. And even though I’m just a lodger in the pygmy room they have squeezed into their backyard so as to rent out in these trying times, only the narrow corridor of a dirt path separates me from their back door; even though I’m just their lodger, we already have a shared history, the Mlambos and I, for though they don’t know it, I grew up in this house, it belonged to my dearly departed Uncle Fani.
Perhaps, despite his incessant worrying over Bukhosi, Abednego really is beginning to think of me, too, as his son. Why else did he then wipe his eyes, set his shoulders and proceed to pour us both generous portions of Bell’s in the crystal glasses? And why, in spite of the fact that I knew that he’s a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober for five years straight, since 2002, and even has a five year AA Bronze Medallion to prove it, did I indulge him and drink the Bell’s? Perhaps it was because of my eagerness to consolidate this new claim to sonhood. He quaffed his Bell’s much faster than I mine, topping himself up often and liberally, until he was drunk blind and chatty proper, and then began chittering at length about his past. I did, then, what I understood he was
asking me to do; I began to chronicle the family hi-story he was entrusting me with, like any good son would.
Our conversations, which started two days ago, are more in the way of one-sided confessions and always in the pleasant company of whisky – which I’ve started supplying since, without it, my surrogate father is rendered a grumpy mute – and take place in between our community searches for Bukhosi. We sit more often than not in Mama Agnes’s living room, just he and I, he slumped in his sofa, I administering the Bell’s. It takes him a while to get to the meat of the matter – he does have a tendency to go on and on about the boy. Mama Agnes, thankfully, is always away during the day and, sadly, late into the night, these days, either at work on the other side of town in the leafy Suburbs at Grahams Girls’ High where she teaches English, or at her church Blessed Anoint- ings where she goes every day to beg, bully and bootlick the Holy Ghost into revealing the whereabouts of her Bukhosi, so far to no avail. My surrogate father has given himself indefinite leave from his work at the Butnam Rubber Factory, until his son is found, he says.
These intimacies that my surrogate father has begun sharing with me are what Bukhosi always wanted from him. The boy badgered our father about the family history. ‘Baba,’ he would ask, at first timidly, for he anticipated the rage such questions caused Abednego, who was never stingy with the belt. ‘Baba,’ although not even the prospect of the belt deterred him. ‘I want to know, Baba,’ so strong was this desire, so brilliantly did it flicker in his emerald eyes. ‘How did you grow up … ?’ Shimmering like a thing hungry and searing and lost. ‘Where were you during … what was …’ Growing ever more defiant after I introduced him to Dumo, who took him under his wing, like he had tried to do for me, feeding the boy’s hunger to know the past. ‘I need to know,
you have to tell me …’ His seventeen-year-old voice booming with a dangerous bass, suddenly mature in its insolence, different from his usual brattishness. ‘I demand to know what happened during Gukurahundi!’
What anguish this caused our father! I noticed how his hands trembled, how it wasn’t anger that made his mouth froth and sputter but something more substantial, making the sweat break out across his forehead. And though he beat the boy, it wasn’t really the boy he wanted to beat, but, it seemed to me, himself…
The boy didn’t know when and how to push, didn’t know how to cultivate the kind of rapport a son needs to have with his father. But I’ve been watching, I’ve been paying attention, and I know how to be around a man when he’s down. There’s a certain silence that’s soothing, and the way to do it, I’ve discovered, is to act as though what has just happened, the flimsy beating and ineffectual yelling and the tremors, is nothing. To change neither tone nor body language. And I did this well; if I was reading the paper when a beating happened, I would continue to read the paper. I only sort of interfered when Mama Agnes was home, for she would rush to the scene, yelling for Abednego to stoppit as she tried to leap between him and the boy. Here, I would jump up and dither behind them, as though I were doing something useful. And afterwards, I would make Mama Agnes a cup of Tanganda tea, steeped for five minutes in boiling water, with a dash of lemon, just the way she likes it.
The only thing I ever ventured to say to Abednego, just once after one of his altercations with the boy, was, ‘Were I your son, I would never speak to you like that.’ I made sure not to look at him as I said this, to keep my eyes glued to the TV, which I had been watching when the whole thing happened, so that it was as if what I was saying was really nothing. And right afterwards, I turned up
the volume and laughed along to whatever show was on, though I don’t remember much about it now, I wasn’t paying attention. I could feel Abednego’s eyes on me, and my heart was loud in my chest. I feared I had pushed too hard, that I shouldn’t have said anything, and that by speaking about it, I had angered him where I meant to soothe. But he didn’t rebuke me; he didn’t say a thing. Instead, that evening, after the electricity had abruptly cut out, as it usually does nowadays, he invited me to sit with him around the fire in the backyard, where Mama Agnes was making supper, and play a game of draughts.
To hear him call me ‘son’, even if ‘surrogate son’, when he sought me out two days ago in my lodgings, was the sweet fruit of a long labour. But never would I have thought my surrogate father would not only call me ‘son’, but bring me into the intimacies a father shares with his son – the family history. Perhaps, had my surrogate brother Bukhosi understood our father and known how to talk to him, he, too, would have been brought into the intimacies of our family hi-story, and gained the solid footing he so desperately needed, but because of the lack of which he became lost, and because of the possession of which I am now found. Lost and found! Lost and found.